Experts expect Christmas holiday to set records

With a socko $16.4 million domestically on Monday, Twentieth Century Fox’s “Avatar” continued its box office juggernaut and should win the Christmas weekend as well — but there’s plenty of competition, as Santa will be delivering a sleigh full of new titles.

Considering the new wide releases and specialty pics, as well as potent holdovers, some believe it could be a record-breaking holiday.

Today, Fox opens its other holiday tentpole, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” in 3,657 theaters. And Paramount’s George Clooney starrer “Up in the Air” expands nationwide into roughly 1,800 theaters after a successful, three-week run. Directed by Jason Reitman, pic’s cume is $8.7 million.

Opening on Christmas Day are Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes,” bowing in 3,626 theaters, and Universal’s romantic comedy “It’s Complicated,” in 2,887 runs.

Also on Friday, the Weinstein Co.’s musical “Nine” is expanding wide after beginning in a limited run designed to build word-of-mouth. The Rob Marshall-helmed tuner gets 1,500 screens.

Limited openers include Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” Heath Ledger’s final film, directed by Terry Gilliam. It opens in four runs in New York and Los Angeles.

A host of other limited holdovers will also be competing for attention, such as “Broken Embraces,” “A Single Man,” “The Young Victoria,” “The Road,” “An Education,” “Lovely Bones” and “Precious.”

The final two weeks of the year are huge for distributors and theater owners; in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, “every day is like a Saturday,”according to one studio distributor. However, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are a wash. By 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., theater lobbies begin to come alive. The fact that Christmas falls on a Friday should have minimal impact (a Saturday Yule is more damaging.)

B.O. mavens will be following the race between “Avatar” and “Sherlock Holmes,” beginning Christmas afternoon. Two weeks ago, tracking showed higher awareness for “Sherlock” than the James Cameron pic. In some ways, that wasn’t surprising, because “Avatar” is an original story and an unknown brand, whereas the Guy Ritchie-helmied film is based on an iconic character and starring Robert Downey Jr.

But now the landscape has shifted, due to “Avatar’s” strong launch. Its Dec. 21 tally was one of the highest ever for a Monday, bringing the film a domestic cume of $94.1 million in its first four days.

Both “Sherlock” and “Avatar” consider themselves to be all-audience films, meaning they will vie for the same eyeballs. Each is being viewed as a potential franchise.

Alvin” has two distinct advantages: It’s a sequel, and it’s the only family film entering the market.

The original “Alvin,” opening Dec. 14, 2007, debuted to $44 million on its way to cuming $217 million domestically. Among the driving forces in its success were Latino auds. “Squeakuel” is expected to have a strong opening day.

Overseas, “Alvin” nabbed $143.3 million, for a worldwide total of $360.6 million. “Squeakuel” is making major international push, opening day and date in numerous markets.

Fox isn’t worried about “Alvin” and “Avatar” cannibalizing each other, whether domestically or internationally.

It’s Complicated” hopes to benefit from being the only female-skewing pic on the marquee. Film’s core demo is women over 25, although younger women are showing interest, as well as some older men. The pic is similar in storyline and tone to writer-helmer Nancy Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give,” toplining Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The latter debuted to $16.1 million on Dec. 12, 2003 on its way to cuming $124.6 million domestically.

Holdovers that should benefit from the holiday include Warners’ “The Blind Side” and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.”

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